50th Edition, News

Race and prejudice: Tension underlies school life

By Denebola
Published: February 2011

By Wendy Meltzer,
Volume 25
February 14, 1986

At first glance, Newton South appears to be a normal, well-balanced high school, with a higher than normal level of academics. Looking deeper, however, it becomes apparent that there is a problem underlying the happy atmosphere of life at South, namely racial issues.
The problem may not seem to exist for many members of the South community, but for Guidance Counselor Sandra Alexander, the tension caused by race plays a major part in her everyday life.
Part of the problem for Alexander is her double minority role, not just as a black individual, but as a black faculty member at Newton South. According to Alexander, “When I first came here [thirteen years ago], there were three times as many black staff members. The significance of that is important. Because there are so few of us, in this year alone at least seven people have come to me wanting know about black and white dynamics. My role seems to be educator for anyone that wants, anytime they want, on black and white issues. This takes time away from my real job, the counseling of kids.
“Faculty members come to me with problems about all METCO students, even though I don’t have their records. They tell me things I don’t have a right to know, just because I’m black.” Not all of the problems are student-related issues, however. There are certain things that are hard to deal with among the faculty as well. Alexander recalls one afternoon in the faculty room, when a teacher said she had just been robbed of a lot of money. Then in the same sentence, she said there had been a group of black students in the room, stereotypically insinuating that a black student had stolen the money.
Alexander couldn’t believe that none of the other faculty members present came to her defense; when she asked them later they said they didn’t want to get involved. It turned out that the teacher had left her money at home, but no one ever apologized to Alexander for making her feel uncomfortable. Instead, she was told she ought to apologize for making the others uncomfortable. Referring to this, Alexander said, “This is what I go through as an adult. Now try to think of what the kids go through.
“Teachers tense up when they see more than one black kid at once as if they expect a physical confrontation. They ask, ‘Why do they hang out in groups?’ and I say, ‘Why not, everyone else does.”
Alexander also believes, however, that black students aren’t doing all they can to be involved in the school. “There are a large number of minority students in Curriculum Two classes. By the law of averages, seventy-five percent or so shouldn’t be there. There should be a normal bell curve. The problem is complex. Placement begins in junior high. I don’t know what happens there, whether because of peer groups or the transition, they [the black students] may be let run undisciplined. People don’t want to confront them. When the kids come here, many are misplaced and they have some anti-social behaviors. They are used to getting away with murder.
“The teachers [of the Curriculum Two classes] feel that the seven or so blacks are a pre-set group, and the energy that goes into discipline is horrid. The kids who don’t belong get bored, need excitement, disrupt the class, start skipping… that is really sad.”
This problem is especially sad for Alexander, who believes that the black students can do more than they are doing. “The image they project with music and other things really bothers me personally,” she said. “I expect more than less. I know there is racism, but they can survive and be creative because others have done it before them. When I see kids barely getting out with low deciles and no college plans, or dropping out, or doing just enough to be eligible for a sport, that bothers me. There are people who look at that and ask what is the point of having a METCO program? They just assume that all the kids are METCO and that there is no black population in Newton.”
While concerned about the black students in the school, Alexander herself remains a victim of racism at South. “People assume I have no college education. I have to prove myself over and over. In a white setting (like South) I am always on guard. It is very stressful, especially added to the normal stress in working. I need to relax, but I can’t do that. I can’t change rules because everywhere I go I’m a minority. Because of that, I live in a predominantly black neighborhood. That has its problems, but at least there I’m not a minority.”
Although surrounded by all this pressure and sometimes hostility, Alexander manages to remain cheerful. She explained this by saying, “Fortunately, I love my job, so amidst the hassle and struggle to survive in a community where survival is obviously not for me, I’m hanging in.” She also said, sadly, however, “The minority talent in this school is unbelievable, but it is not being tapped. There could be a cultural exchange here and there isn’t.”

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